One of your most torturous times in the eight years as Archbishop must have been over the Dr Jeffrey John issue? “Yes,” he says in a very quiet voice. In 2003, Dr John – who is a celibate homosexual – was appointed as Bishop of Reading. After the announcement, conservative Anglican leaders in a number of countries stated their intention to split from the Communion if the consecration went ahead. As a consequence, the Archbishop withdrew his support of his friend and asked him to step down. At the same time, the Anglican Church in America voted in the Right Rev Gene Robinson, a practising homosexual, as Bishop of New Hampshire.
In May, this year, the first lesbian bishop, the Rev Canon Mary Glasspool, was ordained in Los Angeles. In July, Dr John’s name re-entered the frame, as the Crown Nominations Commission’s preferred candidate for the Bishop of Southwark. This was leaked, to more controversy, and John’s name was removed from the list of candidates.
It is hard to read or write this without feeling the hurt and dismay that such rejections must cause; both for the individual concerned but also for all gay men and women, and their friends, whether they are Christian or not. It is such an atavistic message for the Church to be sending; so out of step with the increasing acceptance of gays in most parts of the Western world. Much was made of Dr Williams speaking out against Mary Glasspool’s election but remaining silent on Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexual bill that would have led to the imprisonment and even death of many homosexuals.
After her ordination, the Archbishop announced that provinces which had ignored his “pleading” for restraint would be banned from attending official discussions with other Christian denominations and prevented from voting on a key body on doctrine. What has happened to our liberal-thinking “beardy lefty”, as he once called himself?
Much of this discord hinges on the interpretation of whether or not the Bible permits openly homosexual clergy. Dr Williams’s position on this once seemed clear when he wrote, on the subject of homosexuality: “If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm.”
When I read this out, he replies: “That’s what I wrote as a theologian, you know, putting forward a suggestion. That’s not the job I have now.”
So your job doesn’t necessarily allow you to be true to yourself? “I think if I were to say my job was not to be true to myself that might suggest that my job required me to be dishonest and if that were the case, then I’d be really worried.
“Put it this way, it means that I’m not elected on a manifesto to further this agenda or that; I have to be someone who holds the reins for the whole debate. Tries to keep people at the table and to do that not just because it’s nicer to have people together than otherwise, but because there’s a real religious, spiritual dimension, saying, ‘Unity matters to all of us; we actually need each other, however much we dislike each other.’ ”
I have never read how this has felt for you on a personal level. “I was very well aware of letting people down,” he says. Letting down your friend, Dr John? “Yes, of course, of course.” Is it true, as I read somewhere, that you knelt down and asked his forgiveness? “Let’s not go there. I regard private conversations as private. But, yes, I was conscious of that as, in a sense, a wound in the whole ministry from the start... making the judgment that the cost to the Church overall was too great to be borne at that point.” Unity was more important? “Well, yes, not an easy choice. I won’t elaborate.”
One can see, as one of his old friends said, that Dr Williams “must be torn about inside”. One can also see that the spectre of the Communion being sundered on his watch must weigh heavily on him. “Yes, I believe that the Church suffers appallingly when it begins to fall apart – and its mission suffers in other ways, too. But on your specifics – the fact is that since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, every single public pronouncement on the question of sexuality has underlined the distinction between civic liberties and human dignity for gay people, which have always been affirmed, and whether or not the church has the right to bless same-sex unions or ordain people in same-sex unions. Now I know that those two are blurred but the point has always been made.”
But why shouldn’t gay couples be blessed if we are all equal? “The Church isn’t answerable to an abstract idea of equality, or rather it can certainly say everyone is equal in the sight of God. But what forms of life does the Church have the freedom to bless? The Church is obedient to Revelation. Now if you believe it’s very clear in Revelation that the only relation that can be blessed is between a man and a woman, then you’ve got a problem.”
OK, Rowan, let me rephrase my earlier question; if it’s not that you are not being true to yourself, surely you are having to fight, even intellectually, against your personal beliefs?
“I have to speak not just for myself, that’s the heart of it. But when I mention the statements that have been made about civil liberties and so forth, I think it’s important. It does mean that any local church that supports illegal discrimination or persecution of homosexuals is actually going against the Anglican Communion, and I have said that publicly.”
After the interview is over, when we are looking at the Russian icons on the mantelpiece, and a painting by a Buddhist Quaker artist who was part of a group of theologians, artists and writers that met under the Archbishop’s auspices in Wales, he told me that he’d recently returned from Uganda, where he had spoken, frankly, about these issues with his fellow Anglicans. He must have had his work cut out for him, with such views as Bishop Joseph Abura, who has said: “Christianity in Africa is under attack by gays and Christians in Europe and the Americas... The vice of homosexuality through the necessary laws in place can be checked.”
Are you still pro women bishops? “I’m pro.” So why do you make more of a plea for them than gay bishops? “The answer is, partly what I said before, that the question about gay people is not about their dignity or the respect they deserve as gay people, it’s a question about a particular choice of life, a partnership, and what the Church has to say about that.
“Those issues don’t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. That’s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop.” Really? “It’s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.”
The reporter is incredulous at Dr. William's position. But I saw him take this same position - perhaps even more strongly articulated at the closing press conference at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury in 2008. There he told the press:
Here he states to the reporter from the Guardian that he cannot accept that full inclusion of gays and lesbians in all rites and orders of the church is a human right, as well as clarifying his views on the "prophetic actions" taken by the Episcopal Church as the cause of the crisis in the Anglican Communion.
What is important to consider in this current crisis is that the Episcopal Church has used over and over again (as has opponents as well) the tool of political advocacy to further a particular single-issue agenda and has done so under the auspices that it a matter of human rights. So one method employed (and it's certainly not the only one) - a "listening process" is not about finding or building consensus but is about wearing down opposition through methods of shaming and guilt until the opposition no longer resists and either accepts this political change or departs.
Here in this interview from The Times he articulates that he is not a political activist, he is the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is resisting the politicization of his office on this matter, instead taking the position that it is a matter of theology, not purely a matter of rights. He does not fall for the tactic of aligning women's ordination with the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals since he states quite clearly, "the question about gay people is not about their dignity or the respect they deserve as gay people, it’s a question about a particular choice of life, a partnership, and what the Church has to say about that." He does not agree that homosexuality is like another gender or race (as in the case of suffrage and civil rights), but that we all have choices about our behavior and as far as the church is concerned at this point, those choices have consequences in the matters of ordination and marriage.
At the same time, it's also clear that Dr. Williams deeply deeply cares and has compassion for individuals who identify themselves as gay. In the political activist model, there is no room for someone to oppose the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians or to not support homosexual marriages in the church - and yet still love and care for people as they are, and in particular friends who are gay. The highly charged political atmosphere has made real conversation nearly impossible - with the promotion of the political "listening process" making the conversation toxic. It is not about coming to consensus, but about winning a political fight.
Dr. Williams has resisted this perspective as far as the church is concerned. He is a theologian, not a political activist. This apparently was a major surprise to his more progressive supporters that supposed that since he was open to thinking through the theological implications of such actions, he was also willing to focus his office as an instrument of social and political change as we have found the case in the Episcopal Presiding Bishop's office. Even when he has ventured out into the more political arena in other areas of social matters, he has been met with mixed success.
Here he is quite explicit at recognizing that the current crisis is not about identity but practice. In The Episcopal Church, the position is strongly held however that it is about identity and not practice. Rowan Williams disagrees. “Those issues don’t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. That’s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop ... It’s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.”
This position may have been what led Bishop John Spong to issue his scathing denouncement last October and three years ago, issue his public letter of outrage to Rowan Williams. In his denouncement from last year he wrote:
I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world's population.
That level of that rhetoric shuts down all conversation - but this is the result when the use of the "listening process" as a political tool fails. It is at this level that we have been in an Anglican/Episcopal crisis in the United States - so much so that the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Virginia recognized that under it's statutes, there has indeed been a formal division in The Episcopal Church over this single issue.
That being said, it is remarkable that Dr. Williams has not capitulated to the political forces weighing very heavy against him - even when met with extreme attacks on his character, and sometimes coming from all sides. In a advocacy-charged political environment, it is nearly impossible to find common ground or consensus - nevermind establishing trusting and transparent friendships. In that kind of environment, litmus tests are constantly employed and evaluated and if one comes up short, one is socially eliminated. Indeed, it is truly remarkable that Dr. Williams has not thrown up his hands in despair and run for the hills of Wales.
This certainly has been what it's felt like these past few years and one does wonder if this one has found it's way to Rowan William's library. How does one continue to have hope when so much pain - on all sides - exists? There must be another way. Where do we turn?
It is a question about choices in life. And we do have choices, by the grace of God - even now.